The Great Song
There are some songs which cannot be kept to any land. They speak the universal language of human experience and human need, and therefore they are at home everywhere. There may be local tunes, which no one cares to transplant from the place of their origin; but there are other tunes that will cross the sea with you, and haunt the house where you live, and fall in with all the best excitements and holiest aspiration and most joyous movements of the soul. What suits the land of Judah suits all other lands, wherein it speaks of righteousness, salvation, truth, peace, goodness, uprightness—the moral qualities that no weather can stain, and whose use and benediction no custom can stale. World-songs should be sung by the whole world. Who can sing Hebrew? The very language is itself music; there is about it the fatness of a full-grown grape, the colour of wine in which there is no death, the juice on which the soul lives. When Hebrew is set to music it is the music itself set to music; and then we need all the universe for an orchestra, and all living things for singers and accompanists. This chapter is as a chapter of delights. It is in very deed a chapter to revel in. Who would not linger in Paradise? There seems to be no farewell in a summer day, no abruptness of adieu; we seem to part from one another as a man might enter into the sweet custody of sleep.
Here the prophet becomes a psalmist, supplying both the words and the music; and so ecstatic is he that he writes a chapter in the New Testament before the time. Men are surprised when they find flowers in unexpected places. Had they found them in their own locality, at their own season, little or no heed would had been paid to them, but to find them out of place and out of time, what a surprise is even the simplest flower! Isaiah often antedates the New Testament. He writes the New Testament in Hebrew, and therefore makes it in its expression a nobler testament. We might live farther ahead if we could pray better. It is inspiration that obliterates intervening days, and seizes upon millennial lights and comforts and securities. We are dull scholars, plodders in the inky letter. If we have wings we do not use them; at best we flutter where we ought to fly. The Church by this time might have been on the mountain-top, and all nations flowing to it; only we have made it a parochial building, and guarded it well with gilded palings. Spirit of the living God, bless us with largeness of soul! What a vision is this! The prophet sees a spiritual city—no bricks, no stones, no wood or iron; salvation for walls and bulwarks. Living stones make a living temple. All that we now have of architectural outline and shape ought to be considered but as a hint. What can men do with stones? Who can turn cold clay, though burned and cooled again, into poetry? Yet even this miracle has been half done in some cases. The Lord permits it to be done, that by such little helps we may get ideas of larger things,—that through a one-paned window we may catch a glimpse of the horizon. The mischief is that we will rest in the little, the alphabetic, the initial, and will not urge on to claim the thing that is signified. We carry with us the little warranty, but we never go to claim the estate. There is a Church within the church and beyond the church—understanding by that second term the visible communion So described, or the building erected of stone, well plastered and highly coloured—that is not the Church. What salvation is there in the world? what sense of divine communion? what identity with God? what confidence that time and space are only stumbling-blocks, and the real city is a city of fellowship with infinite ideas and purposes, infinite love and truth? Who is there that does not leave early Sacrament to talk about the coldness of the morning? So contradictory may men be, and superbly foolish, that they can open their eyes from looking upon God to remark upon the phenomena of space! We need the spirit of transport, the spirit that lifts itself into third heavens, and asks, Are there no higher heights; are there no seventh heavens? In such rapture we see most of the spiritual universe. We are only critics, not rhapsodists. The poet is the man we want, because he speaks ultimate truths; he puts into a line a whole Revelation, he wraps up in a sentence all the births of the ages, forgetting the pang and throe and misery in the holy issue. But who can be in the spirit and in the body at the same time? Who can see salvation as a temple and praises as a cathedral whilst he is victimised and laughed at by his own five senses? We need prophets, therefore, who have the seeing eyes—the eyes that see what to others is invisible; and they must put up with our impertinence and rudeness for a time; they can bear it, for our ingratitude hardly reaches them; they have flung their music upon the world, and vanished from the world"s vengeance and anger. Blessed be God, the prophets are out of the way, but the prophecies are still here, singing, and beyond the dart that would slay the singer.
We are called upon to "Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in" ( Isaiah 26:2)—literally, truths. The Hebrew is averse to made-up emphasis and made-up pluralities, but sometimes it will allow that there may be more than one, so that the one may be for convenience" sake broken up into sections and parts that the entire may be grasped the more perfectly. "Truths,"—that Isaiah, all aspects of truthfulness in the heart and life. The diamond consents, as it were, to be cut into facets. It was not so found, but it will submit itself to chisel or wheel or sharp instrument to be made into little facets, each bright as an angel, each flashing like a morning undreamed of for brightness, each part of the whole. Yet who fixes upon one facet and says, This is the diamond? We need all the parts to constitute the integrity. But who can grasp all the parts? No one man. How then is it to be done? By the whole Church. Can one minister be all ministers? No: he is but a facet; he is but an aspect: we must gather together all God"s ministries—of eloquence, and insight, and power, and sympathy, and poetry, and criticism, and constitute them into one ministry, and call it God"s. So it is with truth. We gather truths; we proceed from the plural to the singular, and then come away from the singular into the plural, and find that all the while there is but one truth as there is but one God.
"Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee ( Isaiah 26:3).
This is the issue of all discipline. What is meant by "perfect peace"? This is all the poor English can do. The English language lives on adjectives, loves them, cannot do without them, ekes and pieces itself out by them. What can we set beside the word "peace" that is worthy of it? The Hebrew sets nothing; we have set the word "perfect." It would read thus literally: "Thou establishest a purpose firm; peace, peace, for in thee is his trust." How, then, is emphasis obtained? Often in the Hebrew by iteration. There is an emphasis of repetition. Instead of saying "perfect peace," that tongue would say, "peace, peace." The adjective comes by reduplication. Who could make an adjective worthy of such a noun? Let us beware of all qualifying terms which describe and limit spiritual life. The danger is that we may find our resting-place in the adjective, and never get into the substantive at all. How words are qualified, how lives are minimised, how truth is debased, by words of qualification; how grand are simple terms; who cares to talk about a "bright" sun? The sun seems the brighter by omitting all complimentary epithets. To be the sun is to be bright; to have peace is to have perfect peace. This is the sublimity of faith. The end of discipline is not to make men critical, facetious, pedantic, pharisaic, self-sufficient; the end of all life-discipline is to make men complete, and completeness is peace. Where there is want of peace there is want of completeness. Light a candle, sweep the house, search diligently for that which is lost; it may be only as one in ten, but the element that is lost must be found and supplied: the universe knows the meaning of equipoise, balance, rhythm, music. "Peace, peace,"—as it were, an accumulation of peace. "Great peace have they which love thy law." Oh that we had hearkened unto thy commandments! then had our peace flowed like a river. "There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked." Nor is this all poetry. Again and again under the poetry we find solid reason; we find under the blooming flowers solid rocks hardly yielding to gunpowder.
"Trust ye in the Lord for ever" ( Isaiah 26:4). Why? "For in the Lord JEHOVAH"—a rare combination of words; probably characteristic of this prophet—"for in the Lord JEHOVAH"—as it were, the twice God—"is everlasting strength." But "everlasting strength" is an English repetition that weakens itself by its very endeavour to be emphatic. What is the literal word for "everlasting strength"? The literal rendering might be "Rock of Ages"—"for the Lord Jehovah is the Rock of Ages." We need the Rock. There are times when we distinguish, broadly and vitally, between the rock and the sand; there are other times when we are so victimised and misled that we think the sand will do, and in our frivolity and impious levity we say, This is enough for me. Then we tell lies to ourselves. There is nothing sufficient for man but God. Temporarily there may be some feasts that satisfy the passing appetite, but the real hunger cries out for the Infinite. It is wonderful what man can do with. What a banquet he can take! When he is alive through and through, when every faculty is awake, when every capacity is astir, when the whole nature sharpens itself into a cry for nutriment, nothing can meet the infinite appetite but the infinite God. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." The word "strength" comes happily into the language of the Christian life. There are times when we are peculiarly conscious of needing strength. When the strong man enters the sick-room he seems to bring healing with him. He is as a mountain with fresh air blowing around its crowned heights. Necessity looks up to him and says, Bless you, in the name of God: we have been waiting for you, for we are all so weak in this house: now we feel strong in your strength; you can lift the sufferer, you can bring to us what we need; our poor dying frailty gives its life up to you, strong soul; now take the reins, rule us with beneficent power. So the soul sometimes needs the aspect of strength in God, to feel the sufficiency of the Rock of Ages. There are times when, so to say, we put our foot out to feel if we are on solid ground, saying in effect, Is this rock, or bog? Is this granite, or swamp? Thus we are comforted in proportion as we are assured of real, living, eternal strength; and we sing:—
These are the most sacred experiences of the soul; they admit rather of reference than of elaboration; we must live them to know them. Even the fool should be quiet here, for he knows not on what sensitiveness he treads when he ventures to open his uncircumcised lips.
What sublime religious aspiration we have here!
"With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness" ( Isaiah 26:9).
The soul often cries out for the living God. "As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." These moments of elevation make all other moments sacred. After great prayer comes great business—if not great in the sense of arithmetical progress, yet great in the sense of moral satisfaction. How sweet the bread that is honestly won! It needs no adjective; it is better as simple "bread." If the adjective come into it at all, it will be at the other end, not as an introductory term, but as one explanatory; then we shall speak of "bread of heaven," "bread of life": the bread will stand first, and if it stoop to accept the qualification, it will only be as the sea sometimes stoops to have a little crest of foam upon its infinite billows. Are we conscious of such soul rapture? Have we sometimes to come a long way in order to get back to earth again? and when we look at men do we look as those who are coming out of a sleep, opening their eyes in half-stupor, half-wonder, because they have been so far away in other lands where the light is sevenfold, and where they have seen God face to face? Beware of a critical piety, a lexicon theology, a faith that admits of being transferred into words, and that boasts itself of a kind of correlation of forces, as if it could go into words, and then come back again into itself; whereas there are no words that can hold all the soul knows, any more than there are vessels made by human hands which can hold all the rain of heaven.
On the other hand, we may well be cautioned against a rapture that does not afterwards vindicate itself by practical piety. Who can get through his hymn without one shadow in it? Isaiah could not; he said:—
"Let favour be showed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness: in the land of uprightness will he deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the Lord" ( Isaiah 26:10).
All is lost upon him. Let the summer-day rain all its gathered clouds upon the sand of the desert, and it will not make a garden of it; all the rich rain will be swallowed by the burning lips, and at eventide the desert shall thirst as with the thirst of fire: otherwise, the world would be converted to-day, and would have been converted at the very time of the revelation of the Son of man. If Providence could have converted the world, the world would to-day have been in the attitude of prayer. But goodness is lost, as rain is lost We ourselves have often wasted the sunshine. We had the whole broad, white, glistening day to work in, and instead of regarding it as an opportunity for service we complained of the heat, and sank under the burden as men oppressed. We say that some men never can be satisfied. There is a painful truth in that statement. The music does not satisfy them, nor does the appeal, nor the exposition, nor the prayer, nor the service of friendship, nor the sacrifice of love; they still ask for the impossible. Knowing what this is in common life we may know what it is in the higher ranges of experience. The spirit of discontentment is in some men, and do what you will for them you find no flowers in their conduct, no fruit upon their life-tree, nothing but leaves, and the leaves half-grown, as if ashamed to be seen upon branches so unfruitful, so unblessed. Doth not the goodness of God lead thee to repentance? Think of it! health, and children, and love, and prosperity, and social honour, and all these a staircase leading thee—no where! All these marble steps should conduct thee to heaven. But as soon as the earthquake ceases men begin again to curse and swear, and as soon as the earth is felt to have recovered from her vibrations men-go back to the tavern and drink themselves to death; when the heavy thunder ceases, and the vivid lightning withdraws itself, men come from the sanctuary of the cellar to repeat their brutalities in their higher chambers. "In the land of uprightness the wicked will deal unjustly." You cannot make him pious in the sanctuary. If he fold his hands in prayer as his mother bade him, his soul is not in any attitude of supplication. He could plot murder at the altar; he could plan the slaughter of an enemy during the singing of a hymn.
So the prophet"s grand psalm rolls on. He confesses indeed:—
"O Lord our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us: but by thee only will we make mention of thy name" ( Isaiah 26:13).
We may all acknowledge that lordships have ruled us of which we are now ashamed. Yet there seems to be a kind of unspeakable necessity of our passing through these lordships, these minor and inferior dominions. We cannot begin where our fathers ended. The philosopher dies, he leaves his pen-and-ink to his Song of Solomon, but not a single intellectual faculty or acquired attainment in reading and thought. The greatest, wisest man dies, and is obliged to tell his child to mind his lesson well, to take pains in learning the alphabet! We have all to fight the same lions, tread the same road, try the same gates, fall by the same difficulties. Such is the mystery of this disciplinary life! Blessed are they who can speak of other lordships in the past tense, in a tense that is completed, saying, Other lordships have had dominion over us, but the lordships and their rulings have vanished and ended, and now we stand in the empire of God, and own no crown, or throne, or sceptre but the Father"s. Discipline is not lost when it ends in that grand loyalty.
Who can touch the next point in the prophet"s psalm? He says:—
"Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead" ( Isaiah 26:19).
Isaiah may not have known what he was talking about A man is not the less wise if he cannot be his own interpreter. There are moments when men are simply mediums through which God speaks; they are the fragment on which the infinite silence breaks into the spray of speech. They cannot tell all that God is saying through them or by them; they wist not what they say. Let us allow all this, and yet here is a most remarkable prognostication of what may well be called the supreme doctrine of Christianity—the resurrection of the dead. "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept." "If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." The whole fabric of Christianity would seem to stand on the cornerstone of the resurrection. Into that subject we cannot here enter at length, but how beautifully inspiring it is to find even thus early in the sacred record a groping after immortality!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 26". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent